Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Plot/structure series part V

I think this will conclude the structure series, although if anything else comes to mind I'll come back and add to it. This section is on tension.

You need tension in your story to keep your reader reading. You've all read books that were too easy to put down and not come back to. Maybe the reasons are different for different people, but too much straying from the main problem, characters with weak desires and little motivation, and not enough conflict are all snooze factors for me. So here are a few ideas of ways to increase tension that I've gathered from a variety of sources (including many critiques of my own mss):

Add a time limit--if the MC can't retrieve the magical glowing turnip by midnight, the world will end in fire and stinky cabbage.

Give your character a plan; don't let them just react. If they're driving the story the tension will naturally rise.

Even as you answer one question for the reader, plant another. Always let there be something to pull the reader through the pages until they get that answer.

Be careful about ending a chapter too restfully or with the character too contented. If they're content, make sure the reader knows something the character doesn't--like, This Is Too Good to Last.

Agent Kristin Nelson once said in a post on conflict that conflict is personal. Who cares if you save the world--what the reader really wants to know is if she can save the relationship with her best friend.

Spill to the reader early on what your MC's worst fears are--and then make them face those very fears.

Put two characters with strong (opposing) desires together and let them strive to get what they want. If the reader knows that they can't both win, yet there is no easy out for either, they'll feel the tension.

Eliminate plot arcs and details that don't lead anywhere. (Here's where working backwards from the climax to what caused it can help you locate those tangents.) Likewise, remove descriptions not strictly needed, especially at the beginning, and in scenes of great conflict/tension.

Use short sentences for action scenes.

Remove the safety nets. Make failure a real possibility, with consequences. Yes, this might mean being mean to your character! Make them go it alone instead of with the help they were counting on.

And finally, make sure you have enough conflicts. Obviously your story is based on a choice your character has to make. But to follow Miss Snark's method, it's much more interesting when both choices hold a promise of something desirable, and a threat. Otherwise, it's a no-brainer. For a satisfying climax, your MC needs to sacrifice a little, and make a real choice. Then your reader can walk away satisfied that the MC has truly overcome.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Plot/structure series part IV

Today's topic is the beginning and working in back story. You need to accomplish two things at the beginning: ground the reader in what is "normal" for your story/characters so that they have a sense of meaning when something truly different happens. At the same time, you need to present unsolved problems that suck the reader deeper into the story.

The overwhelming tendency is to put in way too much introductory material in the beginning. No matter how quirky your characters are, if they don't start doing something in the right-now of the story, you are going to lose your readers. We don't need to know about the dog they had when they were six, or how their dad used to make pancakes when they were small, or all the details of the fight that means the family isn't talking any more. We only need to know enough to follow the current action of the story. Give out your information on a need to know basis. Especially in the beginning, you are establishing What This Book is All About, and if you veer too far off with unnecessary background info, you mislead the reader into placing too much importance on something that doesn't bear fruit within the novel itself.

Less common is the problem of too much action, too soon, and we don't get enough of a sense of the character and setting to know how to interpret the action or feel for the character. I still say you need to do this briefly. Agent Rachel Vater has a little bit to say about this here--basically, that whatever action you start out with needs to come through the filter of emotion. So add that emotion to everything--your setting (are the clouds restrictive, chaining the MC with darkness and not letting them see the sun, or are they warm, protective, comforting?) , your character descriptions (snarky introductions, fearful, etc.), and the situation. My husband says that a few piercingly accurate details go a lot further than a lot of bland words.

Going back to only giving what the reader needs to know: this is not only a factor of keeping the beginning from being too slow. It's also an element that's important for drawing the reader through the whole book. If you always leave just one more question in the reader's mind, they'll be compelled to keep reading until they get that answer. This keeps your pacing tight and keeps your reader wanting more. Three excellent books that illustrate this are Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, Dairy Queen, by Catherine Murdock, and Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. In Speak, you know something horrible happened, something more than the other classmates know, and you stick with the MC until she's ready to confront that. In Dairy Queen, you know something's not right with the family, but she doesn't tell you what happened until you're already invested in the story enough to make it mean something. If Murdock had just said to start out with that there was a fight, it wouldn't carry the weight it does when all is finally revealed later in the book. And Twilight is a series of questions (why does Edward react so strongly to Bella? Can he balance his conflicting desires? How will they ever work out the huge obstacles between them?)

Assignment: Look at these three books (or any other beginning you feel is particularly effective) and list the unanswered questions that arise in the first chapter. Now look at your own first chapter. Do you have enough unanswered questions? Do you have information in there that doesn't lead on to real-time events in the book, that you could delete?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Plot/structure series--part III

To me, plot is what happens when a bunch of characters are all working to accomplish something, only their desires and actions clash with each other. Only by either fighting through or working out a compromise can the main character win. (I suppose the MC could lose, too, but I don't like to read that kind of book. :)

Therefore (and this is most helpful once you have a draft to work with), you need to check the character arcs/plot lines of all your characters to make sure they are working properly. My checklist for each character includes the following:

1. What does the character want most?
2. What does the character fear most?
3. What is the character willing to sacrifice to get what they want?

It's a good idea if the things the character fears most then actually occur in the story. Those are the obstacles. I'd also hazard a guess that it's most effective when that thing the character fears most occurs at the hands of another character. It ups the tension and also binds the characters together so that your story feels whole and integrated.

With this at the top of the page, I then go through my draft and write a line for each thing that character does in the story, as found in the draft itself, not in the projections of my mind. I find it's very revealing! Characters drop out, motivations change, repetitions show up, and sometimes good things happen, too, like when I can see what really should be going on between two characters. Also, this is a good way to make sure everyone you've written in the story really belongs there. Can you tell the story without that person in it? If you removed that entire character arc, does the story stand alone? Likewise, you may find you're missing a character.

Plot happens because characters create it through their desires and choices.

Assignment: Write a character arc for each character in your draft and analyze how effective they are in the story.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Plot/structure series--part II

Okay, now that you've figured out just what's at stake in your ms and studied other books, it's time to make sure everything in the book feeds to that point. There's a piece of merry-go-round-like playground equipment by my house. It looks rather like a mushroom. It has a strong central pole. Ropes spread out in all directions from the top of the pole to connect a series of concentric rope circles. There are also a few support ropes down below to keep the thing steady. If you're a kid, you then climb on top and get someone to spin it, and around you go. This thing is like your plot. Maybe not every rope touches the central support pole--but every rope is inextricably tied to it. If you removed any one of the ropes, the thing wouldn't work. Think of your plot this way.

The most important part of the plot is that central pole, which is your main character. Remember last time? That central goal your MC has and his/her plan to reach that goal is your central pole. Which means that your MC has to be in the driver's seat. They need to react, true, but most of all, they need to be causing things to happen. When you have a series of events but they aren't causative, you get a sag in the action. When your MC acts, meets the consequences of the action, and reacts by making another choice, you get tension, rising action, and an interesting plot. No, that doesn't mean it has to be car chases. One of the loveliest "quiet" books with plenty of tension based on character choice and the consequences that follow is Cynthia Lord's Rules. Go read this book, it's put together extremely well. (Not to mention the lovely prose, likeable characters, and perfect mix of humor and poignancy.)

Assignment: Pick a few books in your genre and find the climax. Then, working backwards, ask yourself what caused this to happen? (And more importantly, who?) Trace the line of event to initiator all the way back to that first decision. Then do this with your own WIP.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Plot/structure series--part I

In the past year I've done a lot of full-ms critiques and I also spent the summer revising my own book for structural issues, so I've had plot on the brain this year. One thing I've noticed is that there's a lot more schrift given to sentence-level issues (dialogue tags, adverbs, etc.) than to structural issues in writing education. I suspect, however, that it's at the root of agent/editor rejections such as: "I'm not feeling the stakes," or "I like the MC but I'm not sure I'm feeling his struggle," or "The middle sags," or "You have a nice premise and nice writing, but I'm afraid I don't have the time to devote to getting this up to par." I hope if someone else out there is working on this issue they can join in the discussion and exchange ideas. Major resources on this topic include editor Cheryl Klein's many talks on plot, Miss Snark's crapometers, editor Thomas McCormack's book The Fiction Editor, and Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method.

The first point I want to bring out today is the importance of boiling your main plot down into a short sentence (okay, maybe three, max). This is important when you're writing the hook of a query; it's also important for making your whole novel hang together. I found three expert formulas for this:

1. Miss Snark says:

X is the main guy;
Y is the bad guy;
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't solve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

In the book itself, I think it needs to be pretty clear who your main character is right up front. The reader doesn't have to know who the bad guy is, but they do need to know that there is one. And--notice the double complication? If your MC has to choose between stealing (and going to jail) and not stealing (and having a happy, carefree life), that's a boring plot. You need compelling reasons to do (or not do) each option.

2. Add to that this important point paraphrased from Elizabeth Bunce (and many other writers/editors): what does your character do to overcome his/her obstacle? (Note: not "what happens" to make the obstacle fall, but what does the MC actually DO?) Draw a straight line between desire, obstacle, and the MC's ultimate act to overcome said obstacle to achieve goal.

3. Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method, which is where you basically start with a single sentence encapsulating the novel, and gradually expand from there.

Assignment: Pick ten books in the genre in which you write and boil each of them down to 1-3 sentences. Then do that for your own manuscript.